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Field Goal Range is a Myth

I have a theory about why coaches make sub-optimal decisions on fourth down. They expect perfection out of their kicker (or punter) when they understand that perfection is not possible with the offense. They do not trust their pro bowl quarterbacks to complete a pass, but will trot out a kicker with 20 career kicks to his name and just trust that all will go fine.

If every punt from beyond midfield was actually downed inside the five, then decisions to punt would be justified. The problem is, over and over in the real world, we see that they are not.  Some small percentage of punts are blocked, some others are mis-hit and go out of bounds before the twenty, others allow for a return, and even those that do land inside the twenty are then subject to the whims of chance and ability of the coverage gunners to stop the ball before it goes in the end zone.

Which brings me to the claim that field goal range is a myth.  Coaches tend to think in absolutes, and in the case of “field goal range” it is a dangerous mythology to believe in and play for.  Is there some limit to human ability to kick the football with men rushing at you?  Sure. We saw last week with Josh Scobee’s 59-yard field goal that it is further than the commonly accepted standard for “within field goal range.” I’ve seen kickers make fifty yard field goals with 15 yards to spare, so I know that if they absolutely tried to kick a 65 yard field goal, some small percentage of kicks would be good.

But it is on the other end of the spectrum, “within field goal range,” that I am more concerned with. Coaches tend to think in binary “within/without” language, rather than consider the spectrum–every yard closer to the end zone increases the chances of a successful kick.  Just because you are at the 30 doesn’t mean you stop.  But year after year, game after game, we see coaches play to the “within field goal range” mythology, get to the edge of where a kick is reasonably possible, and then meekly run the ball and wait for the kick.

I was reminded of this again with a fascinating finding by Brian Burke.  Someone asked him whether Pittsburgh should have taken a safety, when up by 4 and backed up against their end zone, at the end of the loss to Baltimore.   His initial reaction, like mine, is that you don’t go to a situation where you can lose on a field goal just to gain twenty yards in field position.  That’s not what recent history has shown.  According to Burke, an offense trailing by 4 with the ball at the opponent’s 41 and 1:10 left has a 43% chance of winning the game.  A team trailing by 2 with the same time left, starting at their own 40 and needing a field goal to win, has a 37% chance of winning.

That seems incredible, but I think it is just an indictment of the conservative nature of coaches when given an option to be conservative, and the “field goal range” mythology.  I suspect what happened is a lot of those teams needing a field goal got just inside field goal range and then went conservative, and a fair number ended up missing the kick.  The teams needing a touchdown, on the other hand, did not have that crutch to lean against.  I’m not blaming Tomlin, though it would have been an inventive solution at the most difficult kicking stadium in the league to set that trap, because the strategy is only optimal if you assume sub-optimal strategy from the opponent.  However, sub-optimal is the industry standard right now when it comes to decisions about getting in “field goal range.” [photo via Getty]

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